Ttibal (Facial and Bodily) Marks in African Culture

As a matter of fact I take strong exception to the marks on African indigenes as “Scarification.” It was/is the Westerners way of undermining everything African and making it look ugly and an un-civilize practice. Today, in the Western world many people are also piercing their bodily parts (including tongue, lips, navel, clitoris, penis, breast, eyebrows et al) and inserting it with various rings as a sign of high class culture and they turn around to accuse Africans who mark their body for various valid historical, cultural, medical, religious and aesthetic reasons.Deaf / dumb kids etc., were tribal marked for quick identification especially when such need assistance in public.  It is unfortunate that many Africans have also bought into this cultural imperialist propaganda against tribal marks and other marks on the body of an African.

Yoruba facial mark (it is known as yensuwa kam “crying mark” in Ghana
In the olden days, when a child is born, the proud father will want the child to be given tribal marks as a way of expressing that he is the legitimate father of the child as well as a way of identifying the child in their family lineage or ethnic group. It is believed that the best way of identifying people of same ethnic group is the similarity of their marks and in that case, they protect their interest.

Bor Dinka tribal mark,South Sudan
Tribal marks which can also be described as facial marks though well dominated in Africa, can be traced to some foreigners who were living in Egypt in the 5th century BC. During that time, a Greek historian, Herodotus wrote about some foreigners living in Egypt who cut their foreheads with knives to differentiate themselves from the Egyptians. This practice was further adopted years later when several kings of various kingdoms in Africa, started invading other kings and their people for land and other resources. The invaders therefore mark themselves as well as their family members to differentiate themselves from the captured kings and their family members whom they now regard as their slaves.

Yoruba facial mark
A CERTAIN King named Sango sent two slaves to a distant country on an important mission.
In due course they returned, and he found that one slave had achieved successfully what he had been sent to do, while the other had accomplished nothing. The King therefore rewarded the first with high honours, and commanded the second to receive a hundred and twenty-two razor cuts all over his body.
This was a severe punishment, but when the scars healed, they gave to the slave a very remarkable appearance, which greatly took the fancy of the King’s wives.

Yoruba tribal facial mark chart
Sango therefore decided that cuts should in future be given, not as punishment, but as a sign of royalty, and he placed himself at once in the hands of the markers. However, he could only bear two cuts, and so from that day two cuts on the arm have been the sign of royalty, and various other cuts came to be the marks of different tribes.”

Woman from the Nuer tribe, located in South Sudan and western Ethiopia.
It is a way of identification passed down from family to family, members of the same village, identification of royal lineage and people from the same lineage. But different sets of people have similar tribal marks that differentiate them from people from a different lineage or village. Since tribal marks are used mainly to differentiate ethnic groups, they vary. There are marks are on the cheeks, forehead, on the temple, under the chin and so on. There are vertical lines, horizontal, both vertical and horizontal, slanted lines on both cheeks. These marks are in patterns based on the ethnic group of their bearer and have different meanings and different names. The Yorubas for example, have different pattern of marks and names for them like ture, bamu, keke, gombo, abaja, pele etc.

Funke,Yoruba (single vertical mark)

Yoruba woman (single horizontal marks)
The Hausas also have names for tribal marks like zube, yan baka, doddori, bille and so on. The well known Fulani marking is the kalangu. Tribal marks are not well associated with the Igbos, only a very few of them have marks which in most cases are on their temple.

Hausa tribal mark
In northern and upper west region of Ghana many individuals living there migrated from the Burkina Faso and retain their specific marks (Bakarewie).
Making also allow groups living within close proximity to one another to able to differentiate between themselves, as there are often unwritten rules that forbids those of the same clans or tribes to inter-marry one another.

Miss Binki Mama, Karrayyu girl, Ethiopia
Though, markings are done on the face mostly for the purpose of ethnic identification, not all marks on the face are for the purpose of identifying an individual as belonging to a particular ethnic group. There are other reasons for facial markings; some are associated with spiritual or religious practices. In some Yoruba settings, children born as still = birth or a “reincarnated child” which is called abiku, a child believed to have been born twice or thrice are given marks on their face and body for several reasons. It is believed that to take away the spiritual powers of the child, he has to be identified by the marks when he/she is given birth to again and to stop the death of the child at a tender age. It can also be used to wade away evil spirits ravaging around a certain group of people or family. In this case, the marks are not only on the face but other parts of the body as well.

In Ghana among most tribes reincarnated child mark known in Yoruba abiku are referred to as “Kosanma”  and the marks on the face are known as “Kosanma” or “Donko” marks. The belief for making these marks are the same as in Yoruba belief explained above.
   Mr E T Mensah
Most tribes in Africa give marks to their people for spiritual protection against evil spirit,another person who want to do them harm or bad luck in their life. Among Ghanaians and other Africans fetish priests, Shamans or herbalists are the ones who prescribe these marks. They cut the body and powerful herbs with spiritual potency are inserted in to heal with the body for the future protection against evil. The cuts are made on the hips,wrists,stomach or shoulders.
               Ghanaian student with convulsion mark
Apart from spiritual and religious purposes, facial marks are given to certain people for the treatment of illness especially children. In this case, traditional healers do incisions on the children’s face or body to treat them for ailments like convulsion, pneumonia and measles.
The medical marks can be made on any part of the body where the ailment afflicts that person. These marks are usually very small and some are very difficult to spot.
                                Datoga tribe women of Tanzania
Some people belong to a certain tribes that don’t encourage tribal marks but admire certain patterns thus, these can decide to have their faces marked and in this case, it is for beautification and not identification.
                              Typical Ghanaian Fante tribal mark of beautification
Tribal marks are mostly given to people at a very young age most especially when they are babies. This is because at that age, the child doesn’t have a say on decisions to giving him/her tribal marks. The people who make these marks use either razor blades or sharp knives to cut the face and they have native dye, pigmentation or black paste usually from grinded charcoal dust which is put into the open wound to stain the marks, stop the bleeding and to make the wound heal fast. It is the black paste applied to the wound that makes the mark permanent and never fade away growing alongside the bearer.
                                                Afar Woman, Ethiopia

                       decorated stomach mark

                                          Sudan dinka girl

                                                      tribal marks Taken in: Nigeria / Jigawa

                               Datoga Tribe woman of Tanzania

                                    Fulani Man, Nigeria


                                                    Yoruba mark

                                                Niger woman

                                Fulani woman from Trodi in Niger

                                            Circa 1930 Bilena girl from Eritria on postcard

Pretty Bodi tribe girl from Ethiopia`s Omo Valley (where the African tribes maintains their traditional African culture devoid of foreign/alien contamination) showing her tribal beautification marks.
Africa | Tribal scarification on body. Scarification is used as a form of initiation into adulthood, beauty and a sign of a village, tribe, and clan. Natitingou, Benin | © Jean-Michel Clajot, 2006
Africa | Man with tribal scarification on his face and body. Scarification is used as a form of initiation into adulthood, beauty and a sign of a village, tribe, and clan. Natitingou, Benin | © Jean-Michel Clajot
Somba tribe man
Africa | Voodoo festival 2012, Ouidah, Benin | © Luca Gargano.
Fulani girl with facial tattoo

                                     A Peul girl with tribal mark

Surma tribe beautification marks

Fon vodoun marks,ouidah,Benin

Girl from Dori region in Burkina Faso
Africa | A man shows the scarifications on his face. Scarification is used as a form of initiation into adulthood, beauty and a sign of a village, tribe, and clan. Natitingou, Benin | © Jean-Michel Clajot

Hamer tribe beautification marks
Africa | Photo by Benoit Feron

Tribal beautification marks

Toposa girl with scarifications

Nuba tribe beautification marks

Africa | A woman shows the tribal scarification on her face. Scarification is used as a form of initiation into adulthood, beauty and a sign of a village, tribe and clan. Abomey-Calavi, Benin | © Jean-Michel Clajot
Woman from Abomey-Calavi,Benin

Fon Tribal mark

Dinka tribal mark

Africa | A man shows the scarifications on his face. Scarification is used as a form of initiation into adulthood, beauty and a sign of a village, tribe, and clan. Natitingou, Benin | © Jean-Michel Clajot
Details of the scarification of a Bwaka Woman | © Casimir Zagourski (1880 – 1941)
Africa | Young girl. Dahomey || Scanned old postcard
Africa | "An intense encounter at Nadoba". Young Tamberma man from Togo with heavy facial scars and an intense look. | ©John Kenny
Africa | Bakutu woman with scarification. Belgian Congo. ca. 1940s | ©C. Lamote
Bakutu woman with scarification. Belgian Congo. ca. 1940s | ©C. Lamote
Africa | Bas man from Congo with scarification on his torso | Scanned vintage postcard
Africa | Yasayama woman with scarification. Belgian Congo. ca. 1940s | ©C. Lamote
Anyuak tribal mark, Sudan
Africa | Fulani girl in Togo | Photographer unknown.
Fulani girl from Togo
Guinea tribal mark
Nuer tribal mark

Hausa girl with tribal marks-Niger

Two Zulu Maidens in Costume, n.d. [Circa 1910] one with tribal mark on her tummy.  National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution

Dinka beautification mark

Hamer beautification marks


Eritrean bilen tribal marks

Mursi tribal beautification marks

Mursi girl
Nyangatom man with special scarification, which means he has killed a lot of enemies

Yoruba tribal marks


Ethnic scars are forms of culture and art that African peoples have developed. In almost every sixty ethnic groups in Burkina Faso, we find that cultural value appears as an identity card but also a work of art with its meanings and aesthetic values.

Admittedly scarification allowed to reveal the identity value individual Moaaga. Thus, one could recognize a noble (Nakombga), a commoner (Talga), a Busanga etc.Il must say that time Naba Oubri a Moaaga scarified was saved from slavery, torture and abuses and thus benefited from protection. scarification social importance in Moose Manga Scars allowed social classification dividing society into nobles, princes or slaves depending on the type of scars that you wear.
1. The Marende: These are scars of beauty, elegance which consist in two or three horizontal lines on the forehead. Marende term returns to marense (Sonrhaï origin of dyers) which is a socio-professional category of moose.The relationship with this social stratum was not evident in explanations of tradition bearers Manga. But also the reference to marense is very likely.
2. The wiifu of Nakombga: these are the scars exlusively reserved for princes which consists of two facial scars from the cheek to the chin one right, one left;
3. The lemde or scarification chin is in the form of a cross on the chin
4. The dedendga is a form of scarring that is vertically and horizontally rotate three scars left and right cheeks. All these scars are made by a specialist scarifying.

Africa | Bakutu Women - Belgium Congo | Photographer C. Lamote - Ivy's Albums, ca. 1940

Afar woman with tribal beautification marks

Dassanech tribe man with crocodile-like beautification marks

Gonja tribal mark-Northern Ghana

Woman from a Umm Bororo tribe wearing traditional clothing.. Umm Bororo are nomads with cattles by origin from Nigeria

Fulani tribal mark

Mursi tribal beautification mark

Kunama woman
Bobo woman from Burkina Faso
Benue state Nigeria
Sango woman,
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